Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

November 27, 2007

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a collaborative project between writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans that combined elements of essay, portrait, poem, and engaged journalism. This hybrid work grew out of a commissioned magazine article exploring conditions of poor white sharecroppers in the South, but the article was never realized in the original form and instead grew into the volume Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The work primarily focused on the lives and living conditions of three sharecropper families: the Gudgers, Ricketts, and Woods. At play is an interesting mix of observed detail and intimate storytelling combined with outsider examinations. One section may be objective exterior overview only to be followed up with privileged interior observation concerning the intimate details of a specific day or individual’s life. The work adeptly bounces from interior to exterior vantage points to create a profound understanding of the people involved. In style it is like transcribing the soul’s sense while speaking to the hardships of a particular way of life; mirroring larger societal issues during Roosevelt’s New Deal era.

During my undergraduate I studied Walker Evans’ photos from this work as part of a class called Science, Art, and Ideology in a Social Context that explored how art, philosophy, and religion interact at different points in history to produce new ways of approaching the world. The goal was to discern how particular ideals or assumptions “fit” with the historical instant that produced them. Back then I explored the work primarily through Evans’ photos while treating the written work as more of a supporting document. This time I approached the written portion more directly, and was surprised by how fresh and relevant the work still feels. The book is structured as a meditation on human dignity formulating word-pictures out of the desperate living conditions of the tenant farmers to evoke something universal and transcendent.

Reflecting this interior/exterior view of the subject matter is an early scene where Agee and Evans stop to ask directions at a nearby house. The observations in the scene are predominantly outsider or exterior, but strive towards a privileged interior view.  Agee is interested in documenting what he sees, but is also aware of the intrusive nature of this process. There is an urge to create a monument of these people, to create something epic and universal of their sweat-beaten lives. A tension exists in the writing between Agee’s desire to monumentalize these individuals and the awareness that by doing so, he is taking something away from them. This reflexive approach helps keep the subject relevant and engaged to contemporary readers. Through Agee’s description the individuals are almost elementally transformed into statues and Public Works monuments come to life.

“These two sat as formally, or as if sculpted, one in wood and one in metal, or as if enthroned, about three feet apart in straight chairs tilted to the wall, and constantly watched me, all the while communicating thoroughly with each other by no outward sign of word or glance or turning, but by emanation” (31).

There is something subtle and outside of his influence going on here. He builds them up in heroic terms imagining them as nobly enthroned statues, but feels his otherness as if these people were cast in metal or carved from wood. From his descriptions one gets more of an impression of someone standing in a bizarre museum, than of a man asking for directions on the side of a road. The characters’ stoicism and wariness towards an outsider draws Agee back to an idea he returns to in a number of places, the observer seen as a spy or betrayer.

“The qualities of their eyes did not in the least alter, nor anything visible or audible about them, and their speaking was as if I was almost certainly a spy sent to betray them through trust, whom they would show they had neither trust nor fear of” (31).

He approaches this idea more explicitly when he describes the “absolute death” of specimens captured and drained of life by their status as observed.

“…I have seen suspended in jars in a frightening smell of alcohol – serpents, tapeworms, embryons, all drained one tan pallor of absolute death; and also of the serene, scarved flowers in untroubled wombs (and pale-tanned too flaccid, and in the stench of exhibited death, those children of fury, patience and love which stand in the dishonors of accepted fame, and the murdering of museum staring)” (45).

Later the observations become more intimate and humanized in nature, but Agee’s urge to monumentalize the lives of the people he is documenting is always present. I am impressed by Agee’s desire for the noble, matched with his awareness of the fragile relationship between observer and observed. It is this engaged approach and attention to observed detail that transforms the source material into something profound and deeply felt.

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